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Credit: KUOW Photo / Kate Walters

Seattle faces shortage of school bus drivers as K-12 classes begin

It was a late start for some students in Seattle Public Schools Tuesday, as they headed to their first day of class for the 2021-22 school year.

Buses were running behind on some routes Tuesday morning due to driver shortages, and other factors.

Kerry Breakfield has been driving school buses for 18 years. She says the first two weeks of school are always a little hectic, but it's worse this year.

"We have a lot of drivers who aren't here anymore," Breakfield said. "We're learning a brand new system so our computer doesn't match what our route books say, our route books don't match what's supposed to be on the route, so it was a little chaotic this morning."

Drivers were furloughed at the start of the pandemic. When classes started again last spring, only half of the bus drivers employed by the district's transportation provider, First Student, returned.

The district told KUOW in August that they anticipated starting the school year with at least 20 fewer bus drivers needed for daily operations.

In an email to KUOW, district spokesperson Tim Robinson said First Student is "at (or near) full staffing for drivers" and is still hiring substitute drivers, and according to a First Student administrator, city construction also contributed to delays. Drivers also didn't have the week between practice "dry runs" and the start of school to make adjustments for time or stops.

Some parents learned about the first-day-of-school delays Monday evening, when the district's transportation department sent out a notification with a list of 53 bus routes expected to run at least one hour late.

But, in some cases, even those who had their student’s bus show up on time still had to take first day of school transportation into their own hands.

Bao Ng is a mother of three SPS students. Her daughter, who started kindergarten on Tuesday, has Down syndrome and receives transportation accommodations through her individualized educational plan.

Ng says her daughter's special education bus did arrive on time Tuesday morning, right before 7:30 a.m., but there were other issues.

Under the IEP, Ng's son is normally allowed to travel with his sister to school on the bus. But on Tuesday, he was turned away.

"I was told that he could ride with her," Ng said. "And then this morning we loaded them up on the bus and they were like 'oh, he can't come with us!'"

Ng's son wasn't on the bus driver's list, so he wouldn't be able to ride with his sister. Ng also noticed that the bus was missing the booster seat her daughter needs, so she packed her kids into her car, and drove them to school.

The bus driver was able to call her supervisor and get Ng's son added to the list of students on the bus later, but the sudden change of plans made school drop-off a more emotional event.

"The transition to school when we drop off in-person is very different from the transition to loading on to the bus," Ng said. "It was a really hard transition, my daughter cried for an hour."

During a conversation with reporters at Wing Luke Elementary, District Superintendent Dr. Brent Jones said the district's bus provider, First Student, is working to hire and train more drivers.

The district expects to be fully staffed by October.